The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to consider dismissing a free-speech case brought against Secret Service agents by Jackson County residents who protested against President George W. Bush during his 2004 visit to Jacksonville.
In the class-action lawsuit, the seven protesters and the Jackson County Pacific Green Party contend their First Amendment rights were violated when the two agents directed local police to move the protesters farther away from the president than pro-Bush demonstrators.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in April 2012 there was enough evidence that agents Tim Wood and Rob Savage may have violated protesters' First Amendment rights, a decision the Supreme Court will consider dismissing.
The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration is defending the agents' actions, arguing that agents who make on-the-spot decisions about the president's security should be shielded from liability.
Ninth Circuit Judge Marsha S. Berzon said the agents are not entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being party to lawsuits that frivolously allege they violated the plaintiffs' rights. Suits against officials are allowed if the case can be made that they violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.
The trouble started about 8 p.m. following peaceful demonstrations from both Bush supporters and protesters throughout the afternoon of Nov. 14, 2004.
As the president's motorcade made its way back to Jacksonville after a re-election campaign rally at the Jackson County Expo, a last-minute decision by Bush to eat dinner at the Jacksonville Inn restaurant — rather than in his cottage as was planned — led to the Secret Service agents ordering local law enforcement officers to establish a new perimeter around the president and First Lady Laura Bush.
The agents demanded a one-block perimeter be quickly cleared between the new dinner spot and the vocal crowd of about 300 people, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said then.
"It was the Secret Service that made that request," Winters said. "And the time frame was three to five minutes."
Jacksonville Police Chief David Towe was in charge of perimeters during Bush's visit. Upon receiving the new perimeter demand, Towe ordered tactical teams of sheriff's deputies and Oregon State Police officers to begin moving everyone off the sidewalks on both sides of California Street east of Third Street, according to the 2006 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Medford.
According to then OSP Lt. Kurt Barthel, the Secret Service gave officers different orders about a half-hour before that, which were to move the crowd away from the back of the Jacksonville Inn.
Following the new orders, police in riot gear began clearing the streets, in some instances pushing, clubbing and using pepper spray to force protesters to move, and then detaining them while the pro-Bush demonstrators were allowed to stand a couple of blocks away unmolested, according to the complaint.
One officer also shot at protesters with a pepper ball gun, Winters said then, describing the weapon as a non-lethal air rifle that shoots plastic-coated paint balls filled with capsaicin.
Anti-Bush demonstrator Michael Moss, who is part of the class-action lawsuit, was hit seven times in the back with pepper balls while helping a member of the crowd who had fallen, according to the complaint.
According to facts laid out in the April 2012 appeals court decision, agents asserted they told the police the reason for this request was to "prevent anyone from being within handgun or explosive range of the president."
Protesters alleged that the agents' security rationale was false, because neither the pro-Bush demonstrators nor anyone staying at or visiting the inn were required to move or undergo security screening. The protesters alleged the real motive for the agents' actions was to suppress protestors' anti-Bush viewpoint.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing the plaintiffs contend the agents caused the police assault on the crowd. They also allege it wasn't a one-time incident, but rather the habit and practice of the Secret Service.
"We were hoping the Supreme Court would deny review, but it's not a huge surprise "¦ given the high bar the Supreme Court has set now for suing federal officials under these circumstances. ... We think we have met that standard," said David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
"If we are allowed to take testimony from Secret Service officials under oath ... we're pretty confident that we can prove viewpoint discrimination," Fidanque said.
According to a case status report, the Supreme Court likely will take 60 days to make a ruling on the case.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriter_swhlr.